Of skyscrapers, economic cycles, speculation and Ozymandias

Is “irrational” speculative behavior an instinctive part of human nature, does it maybe arise from the deeply ingrained survival tactics of any species,  identified as a basic law by Darwin, that any species will multiply to fill all the available space, unless it is checked by environmental or competitive species, even if this results in the demise of that species. Despite the accumulated knowledge and availability of historical precedent human’s greed, ego and pigheadedness deny us the wisdom to contain our ego’s, we continue to build towers of Babel in the sky and the land, monuments to our transient self-importance.

In the words of Percy Blythe Shelley  

” I met a traveller from an antique land 
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”. 

In a recent article on BBC news an old truth is trotted out as new “wine” as reported by Barclays Capital:

Skyscrapers ‘linked with impending financial crashes’

There is an “unhealthy correlation” between the building of skyscrapers and subsequent financial crashes, according to Barclays Capital. Examples include the Empire State building, built as the Great Depression was under way, and the current world’s tallest, the Burj Khalifa, built just before Dubai almost went bust.

China is currently the biggest builder of skyscrapers, the bank said. India also has 14 skyscrapers under construction.”Often the world’s tallest buildings are simply the edifice of a broader skyscraper building boom, reflecting a widespread misallocation of capital and an impending economic correction,” Barclays Capital analysts said. Read more of Skyscrapers and the Chinese & Indian “bubble”

I am reminded of an elaboration of this concept by Landscape Architect Case Brown of Clemson University, who won a 2010 Rome Prize used  the year abroad to work on his proposal, “Villas: Landscapes of Speculation,” an exploration of the first example of a fairly developed market economy. It’s a look at the villa system, the ancient Roman agricultural complex that spread the empire, fed the armies and grew the surpluses to make senators rich. Originally a farm, the Italian villa during the Renaissance came to be associated with a rich country house.

Brown is interested in the boom-and-bust cycle of any economy and the way it forges landscapes. His investigation will map the phenomenon “as a kind of bizarre behavior that continues today globally.”

That is where the landscape architect’s creative artistic/design background will enter: the mapping of the cycles and how they relate across space and time.

“The rise and crash of the Roman villa system reads eerily like the modern story of American foreclosures — profit schemes of land speculation, securitized and excessively mortgaged properties, rapid expansion and even more rapid decline.  … As a system, they provide a marvelous example of combining a food economy infrastructure and an elite leisure system, all the while staking claim to an enormous empire. How did this economy operate and did the Romans overextend their land ventures as many have in the modern United States?” Brown asks.

He saiid it is the nature of these markets to bloat beyond their own means, and the tendency continues today with such examples as oversized American vacation homes, elaborate golf course communities in China or ambitious skyscrapers in Dubai.

“We tend to overextend markets with gluttonous consistency. All these forms of extra-urban development, ancient and modern, draw on a common set of market-exploitation tendencies. Fertile land, urban respite and profit have provided the skeleton for centuries of speculation. To be able to document the birth of this trifecta could reformat our current landscape speculative practices,” Brown said.

A further discusion of Browns work can be found here: Terragrams – Casey Brown of PREX

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